Classroom Audiovisual Aids Can Help Children Learn About Pollution

Carducci, A., Casini, B., Donzelli, G., Verani, M., Bruni, B., Ceretti, E., et al. (2016). Improving awareness of health hazards associated with air pollution in primary school children: Design and test of didactic tools. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 15, 247 - 260.

Air pollution can have particularly harmful effects on children, who are at more sensitive stages of physical development and often have increased exposure to pollutants because they tend to be more active and spend more time outside. One way to reduce the risk of pollution-related health problems is to educate children about air quality and how healthy lifestyles can help protect them from harm. Effective education may encourage children to adopt healthy behaviors, and empower them to make decisions about pollution as they grow older.

The MAPEC-Life project (Monitoring Air Pollution Effects on Children) conducts research on the harmful effects of pollution on people in Italy. For this study, MAPEC researchers developed educational tools to help teachers discuss pollution, including a short animation and video games, and evaluated the effectiveness of these tools in improving knowledge and engagement. These tools were created and implemented in collaboration with participants from several Italian primary schools.

The researchers first held a focus group with six primary school teachers to inform the best approach for developing teaching tools, including audiovisual aids. During this focus group, the teachers and researchers highlighted five areas for educational focus: sources of common air pollutants, health effects, pollution policies, healthy lifestyles (such as a healthy diet and exercise), and cellular effects of pollutants.

With input from this focus group, the researchers designed a brief cartoon clip and three flash-animated video games for children. Small-scale user tests and preliminary analyses provided feedback for minor changes before the researchers implemented a larger-scale pilot test.

The pilot test included 15 classrooms in 7 different Italian primary schools that were already involved with the MAPEC project. A total of 266 children in the 2nd and 3rd grades participated in the pilot test or experimental group, and an additional 51 children in one school participated in the control group. Researchers and teachers jointly presented a classroom lesson on air pollution to all students; the experimental group also viewed the cartoon clip and played the video games.

Researchers distributed a brief questionnaire to all participants before and after the lesson, testing their knowledge on air pollution with multiple-choice questions. Students in the experimental group also completed a questionnaire about their perceptions and opinions about the video games. Researchers compared knowledge before and after the lessons to assess learning, and used statistical analysis to compare learning in the pilot test group with the control group.

The results of the knowledge questionnaires suggest that materials co-developed with teacher in the initial focus group were largely successful. Students in the pilot test group scored significantly higher on the knowledge questionnaire after the lesson than before, indicating that they learned new content. This increase in score was higher than the increase of student scores in the control group, suggesting that the audiovisual aids were more effective than teacher instruction alone.

Students in the 2nd grade had a significantly greater increase in knowledge scores than 3rd graders. The authors interpret this finding as the materials are more effective at a 2nd grade level; however, 2nd graders had less pre-existing knowledge about pollution when the lesson began, so they had more to learn. On the perception and opinion questionnaire, 97% of children reported enjoying the video games, and 94% of children agreed that the video games were helpful in learning new things.

The authors pointed out that their study sample depended upon which schools were willing to participate. In other words, classrooms were not randomly selected, and therefore the results may not be representative. Additionally, the control group had significantly fewer students than the pilot test group, which made it more difficult to directly compare the two groups. The questionnaires evaluated knowledge about air pollution and related lifestyle changes, which is likely an important precursor to healthy and pro-environmental behaviors, but the study did not directly measure behavior changes or health. More research would be needed to directly link educational materials to these outcomes and to distinguish between the effects of video clips and video games.

The authors recommended that teachers incorporate audiovisual aids, such as cartoon clips and video games, into lessons about air pollution. Students' highly positive ratings of the interactive video games suggested that games help increase student engagement with the course content. These tools could be helpful in other health and environmental topics, but more research would be needed to confirm. The authors emphasized the importance of carefully designing these audiovisual aids and quantitatively evaluating their effectiveness. To maximize student engagement, developers must create games that are enjoyable as well as educational. Finally, the authors explained that although audiovisual aids can be helpful, the teacher is ultimately the facilitator of the students' experience. Similar educational programs should provide detailed materials and instructions for teachers, and should involve teachers in the development of those materials when possible.

The Bottom Line

<p>Educating children about how to protect themselves from the harmful effects of air pollution can help lay the foundation for them to adopt healthy behaviors. To improve the effectiveness of pollution education, this study developed, implemented, and evaluated several audiovisual tools for 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms in Italy. The results indicate that the cartoon clips and video games improved students' learning about pollution and that students enjoyed the lesson. The authors recommend that similar educational programs incorporate interactive audiovisual aids, particularly those developed in collaboration with teachers.</p>

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